Big Game Meat: Cool It!

Preserving the Quality

Big game meat is… well, BIG! So, it’s hard to get it cooled down quickly. We often hear about people losing meat or not liking the “wild taste” of their game meat, but we figure if we ever end up with an elk that tastes “gamey”, it would be because we did something wrong.

Recent Articles

  1. Elk Nut (Paul Medel) Elk Communication Products Now Available

    Joe Carter's 2013 Bull 250
    “Elk Nut”, Paul Medel, has studied elk sounds for over 30 years. His products will help you have more “close encounters of the herd kind”. Available with free shipping on this site.

    Read More

Handling game meat properly once it’s down can make all the difference in the world in the quality. If someone loses elk or deer meat to spoilage, they either weren’t prepared or didn’t do what they should have to protect it.

Wait for Cool Weather?

People tell me they don’t hunt until the weather gets cool, because they are afraid they might lose the meat to spoilage. Not me! I love to hunt warm weather bulls in early September. In 2010 my six-point bull was down on Labor Day around 10:00 a.m. My family lost a lot of sweat, but didn’t lose any meat. It had great flavor and texture. We skinned and quartered it right there on the ground.

If that sounds like too much trouble, think about it. It’s a lot more trouble hauling out a whole carcass. In fact, boning big game meat out right there on the ground is also not that big a deal, once you do it a time or two.

You might get a sore back from bending over, but even that can be minimized by getting on your knees as much as possible. (A big elk carcass requires some straddling, though.) To save your back, drag a log up and sit down as much as possible during the field dressing,skinning and boning of big game meat on the ground. Trying to move a whole elk will cause much greater soreness and possibly injury, not to mention slows the cooling process.

Once you do the above processing on the ground your meat will already be cooling off very nicely, even on a warm day. “Warm” in elk country during archery season is usually not much above 70, but we’ve harvested big game meat in much warmer temperatures.

Increase Airflow

Gutting a big animal quickly removes a lot of heat. Regardless of how soon you skin, quarter and bone it, provide as much air circulation as possible. It’s tough to find a good hanging tree to hang an elk in and almost impossible to get it up there without some equipment. (See the Horse In A Bag) If you have to leave it overnight on the ground, at least put some logs or rocks under the carcass to allow some airflow all around it. Propped up off the ground with guts removed, including trachea, and slit wide open from anus to chin (if not a caped trophy) vastly improves heat loss.

Cooling Big Game Meat in the Field

Here are some tips to help cool down big game meat when the weather is warm and you can’t refrigerate it right away:

Put the boned meat or quarters in plastic bags. Tie it good and set the bags in cool water, like a pond, lake or stream. Heavy duty garbage bags work well for this. Double bag, if the bags are thin. We’ve put deer in streams whole, but elk are pretty tough to carry over to water intact! (Any storage of big game meat in the field will set it up as a tempting meal for bears, or other carnivores, so use caution.)

Yes, there are bacteria growing in water sources like that, but you’re going to cook it eventually and kill those bugs. Sticking big game meat directly into water without being in a bag isn’t a good idea, at least not for long. The water will eventually deteriorate the quality of your meat. We have used buckets of water for this purpose for a short time to cool it down quickly.

Get your meat off the ground as soon as possible to allow for good circulation. Hang your meat from pole structures or trees. A rope stretched tightly between two trees will provide a nice line to hang quarters or bags from. Light game bags allow better circulation than the heavy duty reusable ones.

Hide On, or Off?

I personally never leave the hide on my quarters. An elk hide is very heavy. If I’m going to quarter it, I prefer to just skin it first. Heavy duty big game meat bags can be used to slow evaporation of the meat. The hide is dirty and it stinks. An old bull pees on himself on purpose, so that he can stink like an old bull! He pees in a mud hole then rolls in it.

I want to make as few cuts as possible to that hide, so that fewer hairs and less dirt has a chance to fall on my meat. I personally want even a dirty cow elk or doe hide separated away from my meat, so it won’t get tainted from it. The “gamey” taste many people expect from big game meat is often from contamination from hide to meat.

We are careful to use and change medical type gloves after handling hide and before handling meat. Remember that the knife you skin the animal with will be contaminated with that musky smell and dirtiness. It will have some fat on it and the smelly stuff will not wash off easily without hot water. Change knives after gutting and skinning to avoid transferring that off flavor to your big game meat.

De-bone It?

We often use a cart to move big game meat. (Our favorite is the Lo-Boy Transporter. ) Even when we use a cart, we are more and more inclined to de-bone big game meatbefore transporting. It’s just not that hard to do and it eliminates a lot of weight.

However, remember that bones do provide some structure that makes it easier to handle as opposed to sloppy, sagging bags of meat. But if heat and weight is a problem, just de-bone it!

If it’s going to be in the teens at night, that’s a great time to store it outside. Big pieces of meat won’t freeze at that temp, but will age safely. Much above a temperature of 50 degrees (F) during the day starts to become risky, unless the meat cooled down a lot overnight. Make sure it’s in the shade and is getting plenty of air. Time and higher temperatures are the variables that become an enemy to the quality of your big game meat.

Harvested big game meat from a big bull elk or moose can add up to above 200 pounds. So, just getting it home untainted is not the end of the potential problem. If you stuff a freezer full of meat, it will have a hard time cooling your meat down. We often use bags of ice, even in the freezer to speed up the freezing process. (Find discussion of that on this page.)

Rent a Freezer Locker

If you want to go elk hunting or kill a bunch of deer, but you don’t have a freezer, you can beg your friends for freezer space. Or, look around town at home for freezer lockers. They hand you the key to your locker and it doesn’t cost that much. Transport small amounts to your home unit as needed. Call your local meat markets to find one.

Very Cold Weather

During very cold weather, around zero or below, your meat will cool quickly, even with the skin on. Be advised, though, it is very difficult to skin a frozen animal. We got an elk home whole many years ago during sub-zero weather and hung it up in the garage with plans to work on it the next day. It was frozen solid on the outside and skinning frozen big game meat ishorrible! We’ll never do that again! Incidentally, the only time I really “enjoy” handling warm guts and then working with fresh warm meat in the field is on a very cold day or night.

Aging Big Game Meat

When your big game meat freezes, the aging process ends. It usually takes a couple of days for us to finish retrieving, cutting and processing an elk. It takes another day or two to actually freeze solid in the freezer. So, aging occurs during that process. With that in mind, we see no need to hang an elk several days to age the meat.

A deer carcass might benefit from hanging a couple of days in cool weather, ideally just above freezing or so, since processing and freezing goes so much faster. We have found that any big game meat that gets frozen right away, as on a very cold hunt, usually ends up being tougher due to lack of the aging process.

(More on aging on this page.)

Fresh Meat Starts Out Clean

Remember that very fresh meat on the hoof is not contaminated until we expose it to heat, air, dirt, hands, knives, etc. Bacteria have to work their way from outside to the inside. Upon immediate kill, the meat inside is essentially aseptic (no germs). If an arrow or knife pierces it or skins it, it is now exposed and no longer “aseptic”.

Of course, with time, bacteria penetrate that carcass and destroy it. That’s their job. Bacteria work fast in warmth and moistness. The colder it becomes, the slower the bacteria multiply. Freezing stops the multiplication.

Just Cool It Down

In conclusion, get your meat cooled down fast and keep it cool while it’s being processed. Ideally down to around 40, but clean meat will not spoil quickly (in a matter of hours) at an internal temperature of 50 or a little more. There are too many variables to give you exact upper temperatures and length of times that will be safe for your big game meat. Just do all you can to protect your hard earned trophy from the moment it hits the ground until it is wrapped and frozen solid.

Related topics available:
Moving a Whole Elk
Game Hauler Review
Field Dressing Elk
Gutless Field Dressing
Skinning Elk
Quartering Elk in the Field
Caping An Elk for a Shoulder Mount
Deboning Elk in the Field
Game Meat Processing: Bill's True Story

Please subscribe to or our Quick Elk Hunting Tips and Updates newsletter or to an RSS feed (see left column for both) to be alerted whenever new information is added to the site.

We'd appreciate it if you would "Like" us on Facebook, or share this site with others.

To "Elk Down! Now What?" from Cooling Game Meat page 

See the Hunter's Meat Map here 

To Home Page

New! Comments

Leave a comment in the box below.

Shop Our Store

Elk Tips Outdoor Gear Logo


Newsletter Opt-in:
"I just get so excited talking about elk.." ~Tristan, CO

Search This Site Here:

Hunting Gear Reviews

ElkNut Outdoor Prod.
Bugling Bull Game Calls
HECS Stealthscreen
Montana Decoy
StringSling Bow Sling
Skull Hookers
Safari Sling Rifle Sling
Clip-Shot Mini Camera Mount


Free U.S. Shipping

Bugling Bull
Game Calls

ElkNut Productions

Free Shipping on
ElkNut Products Here

HECS Stealthscreen:
A New Type of Concealment!

HECS Stealthscreen

Including U.S. Shipping

Montana Decoy Elk/Deer
Available Here!

Montana Decoy

$59-$109.99 Free Shipping!

The StringSling:
Best Bow Sling Design!

String Sling Bow Sling

$29.95, Including U.S. Shipping

Clip-Shot: 1 oz. Camera Mount

$21.85 Free U.S. Shipping

Skull Hookers

Skull hooker

$34.99 & 59.99 Free U.S. Shipping!

The Safari Sling:
Best Rifle Sling Design!

Safari Sling Best Rifle Sling Available

$27.99 Free US Shipping

Share your elk hunting pictures and stories on our Facebook Page!

Go to Forums

Forum Topic Discussions:

How often should I use my cow call?, I am new to the sport of bow hunting elk and my question is how often should I use my cow calls?

295 yard kill with a Kimber Montana 325 WSM, by Don from Dallas: My ELk did not even twitch once. He was dead when he hit the ground.

325 WSM is worth considering, Palmer Lake,CO: I believe that the .325 WSM is the ultimate elk caliber...

30-30 for Elk? : I have a 30 30 with 170 grain round nose bullet. Will this work to shoot an elk ?

(More comments about Best Elk Rifle below)


Unique Elk Talk by Idaho Steve (Hailey, Id ), In the middle of the night, a herd of elk came traveling through the drainage and right past my tent...

Smelly Elk Areas? by Jimmy (New Mexico), I've come across many areas that just stink of elk, literally. I have heard two somewhat contradictory stories...

DIY Gear List Must Have's! by Craig (Florida) "Here are some of the items I use on my DIY hunts in the CO backcountry..."

Elk and Deer Hunting and Mountain Bikes, by Skip Shepherd (Tucson, AZ)~ At 67 I am thinking a lot about investing in a mountain bike to get back into remote areas...

Solo archery hunting -- tips for calling/set up?, by Idaho Steve (Hailey, ID )~ I hunt by myself a lot...I'd love to hear your thoughts on strategic set-ups when solo hunting and calling.

Non- Lead Bullets for Elk?, by Dave, Elk Hunting Tips.Net (Garrison, MT)~ What do you ballistics guys think about the use of non-lead bullets for elk? According to this story...

Rage Broadheads by Chris, buddy gave me a rage practice tip and when I shot it you could not pick out the broadhead from the field points. I was sold...

Recent Submissions:

Finally filled the freezer..., Colorado Rockies~ "I was bummed when I got to the property and no elk, nor any hoof prints in the snow. ...I pulled each of the elk into shade then started gutting..."

Wounded Veteran Elk hunts, by Joshua FL), I am a disabled veteran of Operation Iraqi Freedom and have always dreamed of hunting elk. I am posting this to see if anyone would know of any elk hunts free to disabled vets....

First Elk with a Bow, by Ryan H. (Colorado), ...Finally after many years of hunting with a bow "I got er did"!

First Elk!, by Tater (Sheridan, Arkansas) I took the advice I received from this website and was successful…I wanted to Thank You and Your Forum and the folks that share on here for the knowledge and information that helped me find an elk I was quite happy with.


Any success in Unit 14?, by: Dave (MI), "I'm planning on doing a DIY in Unit 14 for 2012..."

Share Elk Hunting Secrets

Bugle in Herd bulls, by Swiltbank (Az) The key to calling in a herd bull is to get into his bedding grounds and threaten his herd. Start off sounding like…

Best Big Game Rifle?

Best Rifle Caliber?, by Buglemup (Superior, MT), "I've been reading what people have been writing about rifle calibers and here is what 16 years of guiding elk has taught me."

7mm Remington Magnum, by Dean (Helena, MT. USA) I use my Liberty Ruger M77, 7mm Rem. Mag. for antelope, deer, elk... Comment: "What do you guys think about the idea of hunting elk with a 270? I also know a guy who kills elk with a 243."

338 Marlin Express, "Light, fast shooting, hard hitting, manageable recoil, and for a lever gun - very accurate."

Guns I like for Elk, by Mountain Walker (Kootenays east B.C. Canada),"I think the gun you shoot Elk with should be one you shoot a lot with... "

.35 Remington, by Bill Smith " .35 Rem appears to have dropped a medium deer flawlessly, but I now have serious doubts as to its capability to take an elk."

Arizona Elk Hunting

Where to hunt in Az unit 3B?, by Cliffjumper (Tucson, Az) ~ I got a late bull muzzle loader hunt in Arizona unit 3b. Does anyone know how to hunt bulls in the late season?...

First time elk hunter hunting Arizona unit 6A , by Rob Marchio (Omaha, Ne)~ I'm a first time elk hunter hunting Arizona's unit 6A. I'm planning on staying in the Pine Grove campground...

Elk Hunting Colorado

Help needed for 1st DIY Hunt w/Son, by Patrick (Parker, CO), "I was looking for some advice on my 1st DIY hunt for 2014 in CO with my 13 yr old son. I have countless hrs going over stats, topo maps & Google Earth"

Elk Hunting Colorado in 2013, By William (Midland, TX) "I am planning an elk hunt next year in Colorado and I wanted to know if hunting Gunnison National Forest..."

Unit 60 Elk 4th Rifle Season Nov 13-17 Either Sex 2013, By Chester "...Any general advice about the unit would be appreciated!"

Idaho Elk Hunting

Elk Hunting Idaho Unit 8 8A 11, This is my first year seriously trying to track down some elk. Is there anyone that has hunted in any of these units and can give me some friendly advice? Mitchell, Moscow Idaho

Elk Hunting Pocatello by Cameron (Pocatello) Where is the best place to elk hunt around Pocatello, Idaho? I'm a student at ISU and I'm looking for somewhere around here to hunt next season.

How is the elk hunting in unit 30A in Idaho?, by Terry (Richland Center, WI) Has anyone archery elk hunted in unit 30A in Idaho? What can you tell me about the area?

Elk Hunting In Montana

Hunting in Western Montana, by Mike A. (Alabama)

I did not draw a tag for Missouri breaks where I have hunted in the past. Having to start over and try western Montana.

New Mexico Elk Hunting

New Mexico Unit 49, by Silas (Los Alamos, NM)

If anyone has tips on areas to start scouting, I'd really appreciate it.

First Elk Hunt First Elk Hunt, by Big "R" (NM)

I finally got drawn for a late elk hunt in Unit 28, north of Road 506 and south of the boundary line of the Lincoln National Forest...

Elk Hunting Nevada

Cow elk in Nevada's unit 222:

"Any good places known in unit 222?"

Northeast Nevada Early Elk hunt, by John (Carson City,NV)

"Any suggestions on what areas I may see some signs of elk?"

Questions from Novice Hunters

Retired USMC MSgt Needs Advice, by Ken Wing USMCRET (Bealeton, Va)

Big Game Recipes

Popcorn VenisonPopcorn Venison with Maple Syrup?

Elk or Venison Steaks Grilled to Perfection Here's how to turn them into steakhouse steaks!

Spice-Crusted Grilled Venison Roast Recipe This Spice-Crusted, Grilled Venison Roast recipe works great for any red meat roasts, including elk, deer or beef roast...

Corned Elk Recipe You can easily make corned venison and elk, moose or corned beef from these instructions...